Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The homunculus in the machine

I, as the conscious witness of my experience, no more initiate events in my prefrontal cortex than I cause my heart to beat. There will always been some delay between the first neurophysiological events that kindle my next conscious thought and the thought itself. And even if there weren’t–even if all mental states were truly coincident with their underlying brain states–I cannot decide what I will next think or intend until a thought or intention arises. What will my next mental state be? I do not know–it just happens.

Sam Harris, Free Will (Simon & Shuster 2012), 9.

Getting behind our conscious thoughts and feelings can allow us to steer a more intelligent course through our lives (while knowing, of course, that we are ultimately steered), ibid. 47.

But if he can’t get behind his prefrontal cortex, how can he grab the steering wheel away from his brain? Harris acts like the homunculus in the machine. 

And why his he trying to convince everyone to embrace atheism? According to him, if I’m a Christian, I can’t sneak around to the back of my prefrontal cortex to initiate an impious brain state. What I consciously come to believe is the after effect of unconscious neurophysiological events. 


  1. Massive debate between Calvinism and Arminianism that took place between (mainly) Victor Reppert, Steve Hays, Paul Manata, and Dominic Bnonn Tennant.


    I think this link should be added to either the Triablogue Master Index or Triablogue Topical Index

  2. "What I consciously come to believe is the after effect of unconscious neurophysiological events."

    Right. So why did Harris berate Christians for their beliefs in Letter to a Christian Nation?

  3. Steve,

    Don't you also take the position that you don't choose what you believe?

    1. I didn't suggest his position was inconsistent merely because it was deterministic. Predestination is not equivalent to physical determinism, much less naturalistic physicalism. On his view, our beliefs are the end-result of prior, arational brain states. In that case, what makes his atheist beliefs superior to Christian beliefs generated by the same impersonal process?

      Moreover, I'm discussing him on his own terms. Given his set-up, how can he get behind the process? How can the effect get behind the cause?